“The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome” by Susan Wise Bauer (Norton, 2007)

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The History of the Ancient World is Susan Wise Bauer’s first book of a four-volume series, as she attempts to recount a complete history of the world.  In this first tome, she covers humanity’s beginnings of civilization, as we changed our nomadic ways, on through the ancient world, up to Emperor Constantine and the fall of the great Roman Empire.  Weighing in at 860 pages, including notes and bibliography, it’s the most detailed and complete history of the ancient world I have ever read.

Bauer’s insight in bringing this lengthy but important time in history to the reader is through her system of not having a section of the book dedicated to each civilization or ruler, but in recounting a chronological history of the ancient world, taking a chapter with each civilization as they rise, prosper, and then fall.  In a time when history is not just about dates, conquerors, kings, and emperors, but pulling back and looking at the different regions on a wider scale, this book is indispensable  It is in this way that historians discover why certain things happen, and why certain people do the things they do: because they are related and dependent on all events and happenings in that part of the world, and not just their particular civilization.  Bauer does exactly this by telling everyone’s story concurrently with everyone else’s.  It’s a magnificent feat, not just from the reader’s standpoint in learning the history, but on an editorial scale also.  In this way, the reader’s sees that history isn’t just about one group conquering another for personal gain (though this is certainly a part of it), but humanity’s striving for an evolution of improvement.

Using obvious and clear chapter titles, along with a few sentences on what the chapter is about; navigating through this book is not a problem at all with these devices, as well as a lengthy and complete table of contents.  The book is split up into five parts: The Edge of History, Firsts, Struggle, Empires, and Identity.  In this way, Bauer is indicating the progression of humanity in the ancient world and making it clear what the reader should be taking from the book.  Her only failing is in most of the book consisting of the history of the ancient western world.  Leaving out the Americas – due to lack of historical evidence, I would presume – and leaving Africa for a later book; apart from the western world, Bauer also focuses on China and India, though not to the extent as with Western Europe and the Middle East.  While I’m certain there was a lot more going on in India, China, and Asia for the most part, Bauer presents at best a survey of ancient times in this part of the world.  Nevertheless, again she does an amazing job of covering each civilization in parallel, so that the reader knows what was happening in China, Asia, and Babylon during the rise of the Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt.  Bauer even goes one step further with tables at the end of each chapter which cover the events in that chapter, as well as those in the previous chapter, listing them side by side with a time-line.

The History of the Ancient World is a necessary encyclopedia for any amateur historian with an affection for the period, and with the countless maps and pictures throughout the book, it is also an ideal albeit lengthy book for those wishing to learn more about the ancient civilizations across the globe.  Now it is a case of impatiently waiting for the next volume in the series which will cover the Middle Ages throughout the world.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

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